When in Boston, go to bookstores.
Or so was my mantra when living in the Hub. Publishing is a close relative of liberty and that city won’t let you forget it. So I wrote a feature story on the bookshop scene, specifically on the state of used book stores in our digital age. Enjoy.
The Last Word on Books Will Be Written in Ink
People say they smell funny. They are too heavy. They will probably make you drowsy. And if you are not careful, they will take over your home, spilling their anti- environmental propaganda into every room.
Such are today’s insults to the printed book. Why read books when you can spend your time looking at more exciting things, such as the star-studded, action-packed Hollywood version of a story? Dazzling technologic gadgets are the medium of the future. Anyone with an affinity for those clunky old- fashioned paper collections are perceived anchors to the past, slowing our progress toward innovation by preventing us from going warp speed ahead.
It is easy to assume the book is quickly losing its value in society. Electronic reading devices such as the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook condense thousands of pages into one handy screen. iPads and iPods play audio versions of novels. Meanwhile, the book continues to be printed in the same form as it always has been, absorbing the scorn of critics arguing it is a waste of resources and outdated by the time it reaches a bookshelf. Today’s youngsters read more Facebook status updates than pages in a novel. True as that may be, more books are published today than ever before – over 550,000 were published in 2009 alone. Whether or not they are actively read, books show no signs of going quietly into oblivion.
The enduring value of books rests heavily on the often hidden and undervalued world of independent and second-hand book shops. “I like the smell of older books, there is something in the pages that is comforting,” explains Tina, a senior at University of Massachusetts Boston studying economics. She prefers to browse at Brookline Booksmith, an independently-owned bookstore that sells new and used books. “Some days I can come and spend an hour browsing. Maybe I buy a book, maybe not, but I always find one that is interesting and read a bit from it.” She splits her time between the new book selection and used books, preferring the second-hand variety for its smell, price and the “sense of personality” that an old book has over a newly published one.
There is much to be appreciated in the business of old-fashioned book selling. Unlike the commercial bookstore chains, independent book sellers have the appeal of
being just that- independent. They have moxie. They have history. They have loyalty to their trade. Most noteworthy, they have an immense determination to stick to an ink and paper industry against rising popularity of online media corporations that offer more publications at lower prices.
This month, Brookline Booksmith celebrates its 50th anniversary. Without the support of local old book lovers like Tina, Booksmith would not have made it to this point. In 1994, a Barnes & Noble opened down the street – not three blocks from Booksmith. Unable to compete with the prices and selection of Barnes & Noble, Booksmith’s profit fell flat for several years. Yet with the rise of Amazon in the 1990s, it was Barnes & Noble that struggled to keep pace, while Booksmith nimbly recalibrated its business model around the Brookline community. By 2009, Barnes & Noble closed its doors and Booksmith continued to welcome more local bibliophiles.
The dedicated small business owner has a motivation the corporate stores will never match: a fundamental, undying love for books. Sandra, the manager of Raven Used Books in Boston explains her theory.
“Printed books offer each person the same experience, whereas an electronic copy may vary according to the device on which it is read. No two people will have the same experience, as they would by reading the same copy of a book.”
The materialistic quality of the printed word is a tangible reminder of an experience, be it an imagination-arousing journey into Neverland or mentally exhausting lesson on quantum physics. Each book shows its signs of longevity, nuances of past owners from dog-eared pages to personalized inscriptions. Ownership of a book is interactive, engagingly tactile. Especially true for used books, each of which has passed through different hands or countries, faithfully telling the same story to each new owner. Joshua, a worker at Raven Used Books described, “These things are nearly alive, being surrounded by them makes me feel that, at any moment, they’ll come at me like in a bad horror film.” A glimpse behind the checkout counter at Raven and the sentiment is understood. Countless cardboard boxes swell with unsorted books. Piles upon piles of other text, sorted and queued for a spot on the shelf, clamor for floor space. “We have a steady flow of buying and selling,” Joshua explains, without a hint of irony. In the non- chain bookstore scene, Raven Used Books appears the opposite of many other bookstores,
especially those specializing in second-hand books. Raven Used Books began in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2005. It was so successful a second location was opened in Boston in 2010.
The newer location, tucked into a small basement-style space welcomes visitors with a sense of intimacy that betrays the cheap horror film vibe felt by Joshua. The entire store is the size of a small studio apartment. Ample light filters down through the street- level windows. This place could be the cozy living room of a close, very well-read friend. Wooden shelves stretch from the hardwood floors to the ceiling, leaving a space large enough to fit a potted plant, the leaves of which dangle languorously onto the titles below it.
“I come here to bury my head in a book, to get away for awhile,” says Christy, a student of nursing at Simmons College. She uses one of the few step stools in the shop as a seat so she can peruse a nearly pristine second-hand copy of English Romantic Poetry: An Anthology. “I actually just finished a Masters in English Literature before I decided to get into nursing. But, I love being surrounded books, always have.”
On other shelves, books are stacked horizontally, systematically, filling all available space between the topmost shelf and ceiling. Upon close inspection, eerie lifelike energy emanates from these objects, their protruding spines seem to challenge probing eyes of visitors and threaten a collective avalanche upon the head of the browser who disturbs their fragile balance.
The caretakers of these printed souls are a uniquely cultivated, albeit modest, group. Understandably protective of their industry, they are quick to extol the virtues of reading. Raven’s manager, Sandra is one such character. It is almost possible to see her brain sifting through an internal Dewey Decimal-like categorization of the information found on shelves crowding her tiny bookstore as she carefully chooses the next words she will speak. “People come in here with no idea what they want and ask me for a recommendation. There was once a woman who said she wanted a book for her sister as a gift. Twenty minutes of discussion later, I found out she actually wanted to book for herself, to help her sort out trouble she was having with her father.”
It is no wonder places like Raven Used Books are thriving while the Borders Books chain fades from memory. There is a built-in expertise in the staff of a store that
specializes in the dissemination of hand-picked knowledge. A personification of broad or niche interests, the bookshop owner is personally responsible for providing well-tended exploring grounds for his or her visitors. Each book is an intellectual investment. With limited space and nearly limitless books, every title that garners a spot on the shelf has to offer an experience that can translate into mutual, economic value for the bookstore and customer.
Despite the stale aroma of old paper – a symptom of the trade – and a suspiciously haphazard heaping of books onto every surface, much consideration goes into the collection and organization of an independent shop. “It’s analogous to reading a print edition of a newspaper as opposed to going online,” explains John Carroll, media analyst and professor of contemporary mass communication at Boston University. “You have all these accidental encounters with things you had no idea you were interested in and wind up walking out of the used book store with something you never would have looked for on Amazon.” Online readers are notorious for jumping from article to article, bouncing in and out of websites at their discretion, blithely unaware of information outside their usual awareness.
Boston is one of the few American cities with a healthy variety of independently owned and second-hand book stores. Within a five mile radius of the downtown area, there are 10 indie bookshops. American independence and the American publishing industry cross paths in Massachusetts. The early American printer Isaiah Thomas traces the first printer in the United States of America to Cambridge in 1639. “As soon as they had made provisions that were necessary for their existence in this land, which was then rude wilderness,” he writes in his History of Printing in America, referring to the first New England settlers, “their next objects were the establishment of schools and a printing press.” Traditionally, Boston emphasizes a progression of learning and preservation of historical facts and events.
Brattle Book Shop, Boston’s best-known used book store embodies the Americana spirit of traditional publishing. Founded in 1825, the shop is one of the oldest antiquarian book shops in the United States.
Quietly tucked into side street downtown, Brattle Book Shop’s unassuming exterior betrays the 250,000 titles packed inside its three story location. Books sprawl in all directions, stacked on tables, into every inch of bookshelves reaching to the 10-foot ceilings. Instead of a cozy living room feel, the interior of Brattle is as outdated and simple as the exterior of the old building in which it is housed. Here, the focus is books. They fill the rows of shelves, titles ranging from World War II to cocktail party etiquette. Century- old leather bound volumes share shelves with decades young paperbacks. A marble staircase leads to the topmost floor, the gem of Brattle, a sanctuary of rare publications and collector items.
“Brattle offers more variety than commercial bookstores,” says manager Zach Marconi. “Sellers of new books tend not to survive because it is an inefficient way of selling books. Yes, they have a large inventory, but it consists of all the same titles.” Competition for shops like Brattle come more from self-publishing online through companies like Amazon and publishing “on demand” than from commercial bookstores. Such publishing alternatives bypass publication companies, a terrific bargain for authors but a method that may exclude bookstores while threatening the uniqueness of indie shops’ offbeat publications. “Today, people are buying more books than ever, but from different means,” Marconi explains. His sentiment is supported by a 2009 study conducted by Bowker, a leading source of bibliographic information. Self-published books saw an increase of nearly 600,000 titles between 2006-2008, while traditionally published books remained at a steady 400,000.
People no longer turn to bookstores for specific books. Individual titles, particular excerpts, quotes, chapters can be found more readily online. “Any commodity can be divided and sold for its attributes,” said Marconi. The book and chapters included. Customers returning to shops like Booksmith, Raven or Brattle are in search of something greater than a stripped down source of data.
Marc, a self-proclaimed “bookstore troll” visits shops like Brattle to glimpse the past or discover a book that is interesting for its aesthetics. “As a photographer, I am drawn to the visual aspect of books. How they are designed, the typeface, et cetera. Occasionally I will find a print or an edition of some random book that will give me an idea for a project, or one that is visually very unusual. A lot of new books printed today are almost cookie
cutter, they just don’t have the richness of an older book that almost feels handmade.” Businesses in the trade of antique and used products are a place to treasure hunt, a haven for the wandering browser. Countless small pieces of our collective past are scattered, waiting to be discovered behind leather bound covers and faded jackets.
Today the Internet is the publication à la mode. Neither books nor newspapers can compete with the instantaneity of blogs, web-based publications or even Twitter if they are in the business of providing new information. Instead, books today are finding value in being the opposite of the Internet – bragging age and oftentimes, inaccuracy. “Books are being revived as an object of beauty,” says Brattle Book Shop employee Ellen Arnstein. “There is an incredible multifaceted value to books. If not for the intellectual element, there’s demand for the rare, unreproducable artistic elements.” Famously, the 1911 eleventh edition of Encyclopedia Britannica is nearly propaganda in many British-biased entries. It boasts medical, scientific and geographic inaccuracies, attitudes on society that are no longer relevant but will live forever as reminders of the past. Therein lies the value of the old book. Encyclopedia Britannica recently announced the end of print editions of its encyclopedias, citing a steady decline in demand for modern volumes. However, the coveted early editions will only increase in value as they age, becoming unique artifacts for generations.
Whether it is to adapt, to reclaim faded glory or to delay the inevitable, books and their bookshop refuge are evolving. It is an oversimplification to assume books are going the way of the compact disc and vinyl record before it. There is a better chance of finding a second-hand book store in Boston than a second-hand record store.
Factors threatening the tradition of buying books for learning or leisure multiply with the release of each new Internet-equipped technology. Information bombards us on every media, around every corner, vying for precious free time previously spent reading. When information is accessible and free through the Internet, it becomes harder to rationalize the purchase of another book. Perhaps, it may not be the book that is losing a foothold in our technology fixated culture – it may that we no longer cultivate the time and undistracted mind reading demands. If so, there may be no better cure than an good old- fashioned paperback.
John Keats could have been referring to the evolution of the book when writing his famous Endymion, a poem that has survived two centuries in no small part due to foresightful bookkeepers of yore:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases;
it will never Pass into nothingness;
but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
– John Keats, 1818